IMF Considers Not Aiding Impoverished Madagascar

Officials worry economic development will be halted without deal

LIKE the lemur monkeys and ancient ferns that evolved in isolation in their unique way on Madagascar, politicians on this African island state in the Indian Ocean are resisting the rest of the world.

A constitutional crisis and moves by President Albert Zafy to reverse the young democracy are exasperating international donors and alarming environmentalists, who worry that political uncertainty will destroy one of the world's most unique rain forests, filled with hundreds of rare animal and plant species.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), tired of missed economic targets, is considering not signing a long-delayed deal early next year that would open one of the world's poorest countries to much-needed credits and donor money.

Environmentalists say if that happens, economic development will be halted, and the population struggling to survive will sink further into poverty and cut down the rain forests that are the lungs and potential tourist gold of Madagascar.

''It's touch and go,'' says one Western diplomat. ''Frustration is very high with the economic mismanagement, and the current political uncertainty doesn't help.''

The former French colony, lying off the coast of Mozambique, is an anomaly culturally, as ethnically exotic as the flora and fauna that evolved in isolation over the millennia.

The cobblestoned highland towns resemble those of the Adriatic in their architecture; the restaurants are a blend of Chinese and Provencale cuisine, and the rice paddies and rickshaws hint of Asia and Polynesia from whence many of the 12 million people descended.

Politically, it has often gone its own way. Madagascar flirted with socialism in the late 1970s and '80s, but many of its traditionalist leaders have looked inward, wary of foreign influences.

That is at the heart of the current crisis, say local politicians - President Zafy's suspicions of the IMF and World Bank, whose prescribed austerity measures would likely cost him the vote in 1997 elections.

''The president is an old man with no economic sense who has no awareness of the world,'' says Elyette Rasendratsirofo, a close aide of Prime Minister Francisque Ravony, the president's political rival. ''He approaches politics like a village elder. He wants Madagascar to be isolated and isn't interested in medium- and long-term plans to fight poverty.''

The latest crisis involves his attempts to get rid of Mr. Ravony, whom Zafy accuses of corruption and who is also keen on a deal with the IMF. Having lost a censureship vote against Ravony on July 19 in parliament, Zafy has called a Sept. 17 referendum that would give him sweeping powers to rewrite the constitution, including naming the premier himself instead of parliament doing it.

Ravony said last Wednesday he would leave the government whether the vote was yes or no, Reuters reported.

Alarm is high among Madagascar's democratic forces, who fought long and hard against the authoritarian rule of the former leader Didier Rasiraka. Local businesspeople are concerned - they want to see a liberalization of the economy, which is dependent on exports of vanilla, coffee, and cloves. They put out a statement in an independent newspaper voicing their opposition to the referendum.

It is also alarming that the IMF, which has been in talks over a structural-adjustment agreement in exchange for aid, have downgraded aid to only $57 million, partly in frustration of a lack of results.

''Yes, we're concerned about the situation,'' International Monetary Fund representative Prosper Youm says.

The anti-IMF camp argues that the 12 million population, limited from a per-capita income of $200 and struggling to make ends meet, would not be able to sustain the harsh austerity measures that would be prescribed. But those from the opposite camp say inflation of 60 percent must be reined in if people are to afford their staple crop, rice, and that the country is falling apart without a defined economic program. Dreams of developing ecotourism in Madagascar will evaporate if foreign investors and donors lose interest, they say.

If there were no IMF deal, the results for the environment would be disastrous, local officials say. Although donors would likely want to maintain an interest in the environment, they would be scared off from giving large-scale assistance if not given the green light by the IMF.

''I fear what the repercussions would be,'' says Andriamahaly Rasolofo, a director of planning and evaluation at the National Association for the Development of Protected Areas. ''We need foreign-donor money to promote the environment.''

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